Henry VIII, The Globe, 30 May 2012
It says something about the play that the most renowned performance of Henry VIII took place on 29 June 1613, its fame deriving solely from the pyrotechnic incident that caused the original Globe theatre to burn to the ground.
The first words of the prologue are “I come no more to make you laugh”, which go some way to prepare the audience for a play in which neither character nor plot provoke much excitement.
But in spite of all this, and for a variety of reasons, the Castilian Spanish version turned out to be one of the most rewarding of Globe to Globe productions.
Translation into Spanish made an immediate difference to the status of Henry’s wife Katherine. In the English original she is a foreigner with a funny accent, isolated and marked off as different by her nationality and tongue. She is even given a servant with a name, Griffith, designed to be especially difficult for her to pronounce. Her gradual supplanting by a younger, prettier, English Anne, looks like the restoration of a natural endogamous order.
But once this Katherine (Elena González) became just another Spanish character in a Spanish production surrounded by other Spanish-speaking characters, a remarkable transformation took place. Instead of being an outsider struggling with a foreign language, she spoke confidently in her own tongue within a familiar cultural context and on equal terms with the other characters.
In fact, the English characters now were now the ones with funny names which sounded comically mangled in Spanish.
With Katherine firmly fixed at the centre of attention, it seemed only natural that the production’s sympathies would gravitate towards her.
The production also tickled its audience by amending the prologue, borrowing from that most English of plays Henry V. After referencing the wooden O of the Globe, it asked us to use our imagination to make up for the deficiencies in staging.
As Buckingham (Julio Hidalgo) and Norfolk (Rodrigo Arribas) complained about Cardinal Wolsey (Jesus Fuente), the man and his party entered from the yard and swept down the stage between them. This Wolsey looked like a powerful figure totally unlike the fat jowly Ian McNeice, who last portrayed the role at the Globe.
Katherine made an impressive figure from her first appearance. Rising from her chair to make a case against Wolsey’s new tax, she looked confident with her dark hair matched by a dark dress and headdress. In boldness she was a match for the physically imposing King (Fernando Gil).
The execution of Buckingham was brought forward from the end of 2.1. He was led through the yard pleading for our sympathy before being placed on the execution block with his head apparently in a bag. The axe struck at his neck and a grisly fake head rolled forward from out of the bag. The cheers at the execution merged seamlessly into the cries of the revellers gathering for the party in 1.4. This was very clever and effective.
Our first look at Anne (Sara Moraleda) during the party saw her sat on the steps down into the yard talking with Sands (Oscar de la Fuente), who muttered “mamma mia” at her beauty. The revellers engaged in rounds of formal dancing until the King came face to face with Anne.
At this point he cast aside her butterfly face mask and touched her arm. She responded by fanning a hand of playing cards and using them to ward him off. The pair dallied back and forth until the King unmasked, whereupon she curtsied reverently before him.
Later, Anne and Beatrice (Alejandro Mayo) were talking about Katherine whose dress and headdress were on a stand behind them, when news came of Anne’s appointment. The young woman looked surprised at being elevated to the rank of marchioness. But as the idea grew on her and she considered further possibilities for advancement, she took Katherine’s headdress. The Queen entered just as Anne placed it on her head, and gave her a series of frowning looks as if she had readily interpreted this sign of Anne’s newly kindled ambition.
During the trial scene Katharine held her rosary and prayed under her breath. She needed to be prompted twice to stand, which entailed the combination of the Scribe’s and the Crier’s lines to make them a double request from the same official.
Not surprisingly in a production that made her the centre of attention, Katherine was very impressive when speaking in her own defence. She confronted Henry on her knees with such conviction that he had to turn away, unable to look at her. When she was accused by Wolsey the force of her response obliged the cardinal to back away. She stormed out of the court, descending the steps into the yard.
In her apartments the Queen knelt and prayed. She made a great pained speech about her isolation and lack of friends, which was applauded at the end.
After his marriage to Anne, the King brought about the downfall of Wolsey, storming in to confront to him with his wrongdoing. Wolsey threw his robes to the floor to reveal a simple grey tunic underneath.
Some road sweeps discussed Anne’s coronation, which was not staged but just left to the imagination referred to in the prologue.
There followed a brief scene with Katherine ill in her nightdress. Crucially, her vision was held over from this scene until later in the play.
The trial of Cranmer (Jesus Teyssiere), a slightly otherworldly figure with long hair, was a great set piece within the production. Cranmer was surrounded by his accusers, prompting him to produce the King’s ring, which had been given to him by Henry to be displayed in just such a circumstance in evidence of royal support and protection.
The others gathered round to wonder at it, after which the King himself entered through yard causing Cranmer’s opponents to scatter. The archbishop knelt before the King and handed the ring back. The King obliged Cranmer’s enemies to make up with him by shaking his hand.
But the real highlight of the production came right at the end.
In a stroke of genius the production made the baptism of Elizabeth into Katherine’s feverish vision held over from earlier in the play.
The King entered accompanied by Queen Anne cradling the newborn princess and the words of the final scene in the play were spoken. All the while Katherine ran among them, but the royal party simply stared ahead and were oblivious to her presence.
As her vision reached its climax, with the future clearly belonging to Anne and her child, Katherine became increasingly distraught and collapsed dead on stage at the feet of the architects of her downfall. Her body was covered over.
This powerful reworking of the play’s conclusion was a moving end to a production that had consistently focused on Katherine making her the chief focus of our sympathies.
Much of that relocation had been brought about by its translation into Spanish, which demonstrated the impact of performance language perhaps more than any other Globe to Globe production.
The text of the play contains an epilogue that states:
All the expected good we’re like to hear
For this play at this time is only in
The merciful construction of good women,
For such a one we showed ’em.
This production removed any ambivalence as to which woman was meant.